The Great Depression of the 1930s had created a new situation: local authorities were facing high deficits, and yet there had been little or no increase in fares. Streetcars had also been operated by electricity utilities, but they, too, were in crisis. In any case, their main priority was to develop a comprehensive grid network, and they therefore withdrew from the public transport sector. Meanwhile, large vehicle manufacturers were seizing the opportunity to promote the use of diesel-powered buses.
In the company’s heyday, Thomas had employed 125 people, but the staff had now dwindled to barely a dozen, waiting in vain for new orders. The situation was relieved to some extent in 1934, with orders from Greensboro, North Carolina, and from Greenville and Anderson, both in South Carolina. The Greensboro and Greenville orders were each for two trolleybuses, which proved very successful, in spite of complaints that trolleybuses were disrupting radio reception. The third order, from Anderson, was for ten city buses. This was not enough to halt the company’s decline, but the increased volume of orders did convince Thomas to enter a new segment of the market. And when the State of North Carolina put a major contract for over 500 school buses out to tender just two years later, he saw his opportunity.
School buses a great business opportunity
There was little change of high profits from the contract for these buses: everything had to be built as economically as possible. The bodies were to be made of wood, with a tin roof. The seating was to be in the form of wooden benches, arranged lengthwise. One windshield wiper only was required, and additionally, to save costs, the State of North Carolina also decided to dispense completely with mirrors and headlamps. Another problem was that the company did not have the financial base to submit a tender for any more than 200 buses.
Thomas’s bid was 195 dollars for a 5.20-meter long bus, 205 dollars for a 5.80-meter bus, and 225 dollars for a 6.40-meter long bus. But Thomas, with the support of his daughter Melva and sons Willard and Norman, had calculated everything down to the last cent, and the plant in High Point was duly awarded the contract. The story of one of America’s leading school bus builders had begun.
Consolidation of the bus business
The school bus contract did not mean the end of the crisis of the company. Thomas found it difficult to accept the stark design of these buses, simply to save costs. Accordingly, his next initiative was to build luxury mobile homes, complete with bathrooms. These became a great favorite with traveling show people. Until such time as bus orders were sufficient on their own to carry the business, Thomas made all sorts of different vehicle bodies, including a whole fleet of delivery vans for a bakery business.
But in the long term, Thomas wanted more than a few one-off orders of this kind. He started looking for new design solutions to improve the construction of school buses. In 1938, he designed North Carolina’s first all-steel body school bus. The usual practice at the time was to build bus bodies from arched rib structures, each comprising two vertical sections and one horizontal section, which were welded or bolted on to the roof edge. The arch was then welded from above on to the frame. Thomas improved this design by making the entire rib structure from a single bent steel section, welded onto the frame from outside.
The State immediately responded with an order for 400 school buses, followed by another 900 units over the next two years. Around the same time, in 1939, the company’s fortunes were boosted by a national conference convened at Colombia University by a certain Frank W. Cyr, with the objective of laying down minimum standards for the safety of school bus transport. Ever since then, school buses in the U.S.A. have been clearly identifiable by their bright yellow color. This led to Cyr being seen as the “father of the yellow school bus,” so Thomas’s concern with safety came at just the right time.
Now that he could be confident the company was back on the road to prosperity, Thomas, who was by now over 60, gradually started to hand the business over to his children, Willard, Norman, Melva, and later their sister Mary, who was much younger than her siblings. They shared the tasks between them: Willard Thomas was the general manager, and looked after customer relations. His younger brother Norman was in charge of production, development, and procurement, and Melva Thomas handled the business side of the operation. All important decisions were taken jointly. By the time the youngest child, Mary, joined the company in 1946, there were already several grandchildren of the founder on the staff.
Expansion to Canada and South America
Just as the company’s future seemed assured, it was again in jeopardy. When the USA entered the Second World War, there was no longer any demand for school buses. In this difficult situation, it was again the inventive mind of the company founder, Perley A. Thomas, that came to the rescue. Thomas submitted a proposal to the army that was favorably received: he offered to produce a truck body that could be used as a mobile repair workshop for light hand weapons. The plant turned out 15 units a day, and they all provided a valuable service at the front.
The postwar years again saw a sharp increase in the demand for school buses, but most suppliers at the time were still operating only at regional level. Thomas had five competitors in North and South Carolina alone, and nationally the market was divided between over 20 manufacturers. Thomas’ company was one of the first to look beyond its own region, and develop a nationwide distribution and service network. A branch in Pennsylvania was soon followed by others in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and New Jersey. The company now has over 50 branch establishments in the United States.
Thomas school buses were also in such demand in Canada that, in 1962, the manufacturer set up a branch factory in Woodstock, Ontario, which at its peak was turning out around one-third of Thomas’s total production. During the 1960s, a further two plants were opened in Ecuador and Peru, although these proved to be short-lived. And in 1972, the company – which had stopped making streetcars long before – changed to the name it still bears today: Thomas Built Buses.
Important contribution to high safety standards in America
For a school bus, nothing can be more important than its safety. Perley A. Thomas realized this from the outset, and continually suggested possibilities for improvements. From the perspective of the plant in High Point, the new safety standards issued in the 1970s were not a difficult challenge to be overcome, but merely a confirmation of an approach consistently applied by the company over many years.
School buses in America are also required to meet the customer’s expectations. They have to be strong, reliable, and safe, and each customer defines its own specifications accordingly. In addition, many calls for tenders also require extreme cost cutting on the part of the bus manufacturer. This puts the development costs for new frame structures and brake systems, for example, beyond the reach of a small-scale operator. During the 1970s, this prompted many local suppliers to seek a national presence. By 1980, there were only six school bus manufacturers left – one of which was Thomas Built Buses.
Most of America’s yellow school buses are strongly built cab-behind-engine, or “conventional” vehicles, often simply identified with the letter C. But even in the 1950s, Thomas was already looking at cab-over-designs as well. In 1978, the company introduced its Saf-T-Liner, which, as well as featuring a vertical front end, was also the first model to have its own chassis with a rear engine. The cab-over-engine design proved so successful that in the 1980s the company also decided to enter the city bus segment of the market.
1980 saw the introduction of another outstandingly successful model that is still sold today, with numerous improvements. This was the Minotour midibus, with seating for up to 30 school pupils. And from 1989 to 1998, Thomas also supplied the Vista semi-forward control model, which from the outside looked like a conventional bus, but provided better visibility. In 1993, the company took a natural-gas-powered bus on a nationwide road show, followed by a battery-powered model in 1994. The company has also been a pioneer in the area of equipment for the handicapped and safety seats for children.
In 1996, Thomas Built Buses opened a new plant in Mexico, at Monterrey, but this fresh attempt to gain a foothold in Latin American markets again proved ill-fated. Just as the plant opened its doors, the countries forming the target markets for its products went into an economic slump. Now the Brazilian bus body builder Marcopolo operates in Monterrey. However, DaimlerChrysler still has a stake in the Mexican plant, which produces up to 4,000 buses a year.
The Thomas family had sold some of its shares to the Odyssey New York investment group in 1985, but the company, now one of the three remaining large-scale builders of school buses with a market share of around 33 percent, was still largely a family business. But to ensure its long-term survival, Thomas needed a strong partner, particularly to fund capital expenditure programs at its headquarters plant in North Carolina.